Students quietly worked in pairs, folding, cutting and gluing the colorful strips of tissue paper strewn across the half-dozen tables in the room.
What looked at first glance like an art class was actually Aerospace Engineering and Aviation Technology, part of a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics offering at DuVal High School in Prince George’s County.
Nearly 70 students, including 15 girls, are in the first class of the speciality program, which was created to encourage more students to embrace the study of science and technology and prepare them for careers in the high-demand fields.
“It’s a real good opportunity,” said Jada Williams, 14, adding that she likes building things and has a strong interest in becoming a pilot. “It will look good on the résumé.”
NASA and the College Park Aviation Museum — both located within minutes of the school — are serving as partners and helping expose students to career options they otherwise might not consider.
Segun C. Eubanks, chairman of the Prince George’s County School Board, said the program at DuVal is much like other career academies that have opened across the county, part of an ongoing effort by the school system to expose students to careers and prepare them for college.
“Rather than just explain to them why they need algebra skills in the ninth grade, this shows them,” Eubanks said. “They have the experience to delve into a career and get some hands-on work.”
Eubanks, who is the director of teacher quality for the National Education Association, said he looks forward to an expansion of such academies into other fields, including education. The aerospace program is “a good start for us, and we’re going to keep it going,” he said.
The academies, which began in Prince George’s three years ago, are considered an essential component of the county’s secondary school reform. The county has opened 36 career-focused academies, offering 12 career options to 3,400 students who participated in the specialty programs last year. Students are studying everything from information technology to health and bioscience.
But unlike peers in the career academies, the students in the aerospace and aviation program had to test into it, which makes it more similar to the school district’s other science and technology programs. Plans call for the program to add 100 students each year, with current students serving as mentors to those joining the program.
The approximately 20 high school freshmen who looked like they were working on an arts and crafts project were actually learning about glider flights, powered flight and hot air balloons in the entry-level Fundamentals of Aerospace class.
On a whiteboard at the side of the room were a few notes about the density of gases and Charles’s Law, a chemistry formula dealing with gas, volume and temperature.
And the orange, pink, blue and purple tissue paper was being transformed into a small hot air balloon.
“They are getting hands-on application of engineering principles,” Chris Kampsen, an aeronautics instructor, said as he moved from table to table observing and assisting the students.
In less than 30 minutes, the students had glued the panels together and were flipping their creations in the air. Some students were making last-minute adjustments as they noticed gaps.
Adanna Ekekwe, 14, couldn’t resist turning her balloon upside down and placing it on top of her head like a large chef’s hat. Kampsen said he looked forward to the balloons’ official launch on the school grounds.
“I like building things,” said Joseph Koroma, 14, explaining why he applied for the program. “This helps me with the design process.”
“Bringing ideas to life,” his partner, Casimiran Taylor, 14, interjected. She said she figured the engineering program would be “fun, different than anything else.”
The most fun she’s had? Building cars out of mousetraps and racing them and seeing how far they would travel.
“We’re not just sitting down, we actually get to put what we learn to use,” Taylor said.
Schools chief Kevin Maxwell said the program will provide students with a competitive edge when they apply for college and if they decide to pursue a career in engineering or aviation.
Each student in the program is assigned a Chromebook computer. In their final year, they will spend time working with mentors at NASA.
The students have attended an air traffic controllers convention at National Harbor, where they spoke with Tuskegee Airmen — members of the black World War II air unit.
“I told them that their parents would know the importance maybe more than they might," said Roney Wynn, the assistant principal at DuVal who oversees the program.